Left, right, up, down

Dear Artist, Back in design school a fellow named Brian painted from the top down. Brian painted like he was pulling down a blind. Anecdotal evidence here, but almost all the “top-downers” I’ve met have been men. Their work has tended to be what I call “tight” — careful, rendered, and of equal focus. Some of us start on the right, some on the left, but most of us paint from the centre out. Neurologists tell us a glance to the left indicates right brain activity. A glance to the right indicates the left brain has kicked in. Apart from all the implications about lying, searching your memory, etc., might this mean that more imagination might be found on the left side of our work? I’ve recently noted the predominant right-weightedness of my paintings. This is particularly noticeable when starting, whether from life, reference, or from the imagination. Sometimes I work hard at rebalancing to the left to neutralize my tendency. Daniel Pink and others interested in left brain/right brain dynamics have indicated a relationship to how we read. We’re heavily into speculation here, but Western languages read from left to right, and thus, one might guess, open with a natural affinity for metaphor or imagination. Interestingly, Hebrew and Arabic languages read from right to left, which might be indicative of the opposite tendency — the logical progression of facts and figures. Traditional Arabic art, for example, not only for religious reasons, is noted for its repetitious, mechanical patterning. This is not saying that people can’t switch — for that matter in either direction. I’m pretty sure it’s valuable to work from foreground to background. This often means starting out lower central and working up. It’s also useful to work from the focused subject or center of interest, wherever that may be on your canvas. Some artists advocate finding “the big picture” — developing the composition all at once and gradually bringing the whole thing into focus. Where do you first touch your canvas? If you’re the kind of person who pays attention to this sort of thing, it would be interesting for people to know your leanings. To get back to Brian, my friend from school. He worked in the manner of the Asian languages. He wasn’t Asian, but he did get to be a top-down design manager at General Motors. Best regards, Robert PS: “In the past thirty years we have learned more about the workings of the human brain than in all of previous history.” (Daniel Pink) Esoterica: Funnily, even though you may go to a new hemisphere, you tend to bring your old brain with you. Here in Argentina I’m still subconsciously finding right-weighted subjects — looking for things on which to inflict my style. But I’ve also been writing poetry. Take this for example: The crimson ghost of a gaucho wandered the steaming pampa, While the smiling guanaco knew the fate of his auntie’s grampa. Did you notice that in both lines the imaginative part is on the left? That’s ’cause I had to glance that way to write it.   Order of battle by Carl Purcell, Manti, UT, USA  

original painting
by Carl Purcell

Since I work principally in watercolor, I have to think rather strategically, the order of battle, etc. But invariably I begin with over all color patches that run into one another, connect through wet patches and generally cover the entire sheet, leaving almost random patches of white. Then I go into the center of interest and develop that about 75% so I know how far not to go with the rest. I keep my eye on that center of interest as I move through the rest of the painting, working all over. Everything I do is evaluated in terms of, “How does it help the main idea?” I usually finish off with the central idea.   Start-stop advice by Joyce Everhart Hoff, Savannah, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands   I am a muralist and, therefore, paint only large renditions. I work from the furthest background to the front. For instance, for a seaside scene, I begin with the sand and sky and pinpoint the horizon point of infinity. From there, I work forward adding large items such as trees and houses. It is at this time I see the roads, rivers, borders, etc. that naturally spring from the background. Then it is on to the minute items. I used to be a career writer and found I worked in much the same manner. There’s old saying about how all writers need an editor to tell them when to begin and when to stop. All artists need the same advice — when to start a painting and when to stop. There is 1 comment for Start-stop advice by Joyce Everhart Hoff
From: artisinstudio — Jan 30, 2012

When my artists at my studio ask, “Do you think I am finished,” or “how do I know if my painting/drawing is finished?” I just tell them, “A good artist knows when to stop” It’s an empowering way to give them confidence. It’s my way of saying I have confidence in you, that you are capable of making that judgement. Along with that statement, we discuss, using restraint when we think that if we keep going, we can “fix” it. Just stop. Relax, enjoy the act of creation, and worry less about the finished product.. It’s just a canvas, or just a piece of paper. It will tell you when to stop. A good artist knows when to stop.

  Revealed in reverse by David Oleski, West Chester, PA, USA  

“Brown shoes”
original painting
by David Oleski

Back when festival applications were submitted on slides, it was easy to accidentally load them into the projector backwards. Surprisingly, it was sometimes easy to see in reverse if a painting was left-right. For some reason we “read” subjects from left to right, and we also read compositions the same way, and something about being reversed just looks “off.” Maybe it has to do with the marks left when working right handed, or even just the methods of working in a right-handed, left-to-right-reading world, or the angle of sunlight in this hemisphere, or just the way our brains are wired. There is 1 comment for Revealed in reverse by David Oleski
From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Jan 31, 2012

I like your painting!

  Brain too busy to analyze by Anita Hunt, Upland, CA, USA  

“The Tiger Stalks”
original drawing
by Anita Hunt

Have you ever noticed how analyzing a book takes all the fun out of it? It’s like picking apart Shakespeare with assumptions, speculation, comparisons and contrasts that take you away from the author’s original intent — to share a story, to entertain, to suck you out of your world and into the word spinner’s world. Some of my work leans to the left, some moseys on over to the right, and some just twirls dead center. I find that I tend to not use just the left brain, or the right brain, but the whole brain as I work; interestingly enough, I don’t think about which side of my brain is influencing my work because “brain” is too busy. I’m so happy the neurologists are picking apart the brain and learning so much about its function but do we really have to go so far as to pick apart the quantity of logic or imagination in a work of art for, what will likely become, the purpose of critiquing the artist — especially dead ones, who have no thoughts on this issue? By the way, I start my work about 5 miles back into the paper and march towards the front, moving in all kinds of directions, depending on the demands of the terrain. There is 1 comment for Brain too busy to analyze by Anita Hunt
From: suzannne jensen — Jan 31, 2012

beautiful composition, i work back to front as well

  Challenge of opposites by Suze Woolf, Seattle, WA, USA  

watercolour painting
by Suze Woolf

The physics of the medium may influence starting position. In representational watercolor it is often more effective to work back to front, light to dark, since you probably want clean rinsing water for the lightest areas so it makes sense to do these first. In landscapes they’re often the skies, which are usually at the top of the composition. If you want drips and spatters to add a sense of random texture, these will run top to bottom if you paint standing up. Of course, now that you have made me question conventional practice, I shall have to try it exactly opposite — begin at the bottom, work front to back, from dark to light and maybe standing on my head. There are 2 comments for Challenge of opposites by Suze Woolf
From: Win Dinn — Jan 31, 2012

That last paragraph sounds fun – I SO look forward to seeing your results!

From: Michael McDevitt — Jan 31, 2012

Your burned tree work is sweet! This piece is fun, too.

  Left side last by Sandra Bos, Cookeville, TN, USA  

original painting
by Sandra Bos

I usually start painting somewhere in the middle of my canvas, or where I’m most interested, putting a piece of dark next to a piece of neutral and light. I’ll keep painting the whole canvas, except I’ll leave a large portion on the left side unfinished until last. I do this all the time and it’s very noticeable. Actually, an artist friend of mine brought it to my attention. Of course I end up painting it, but I seem to unconsciously ignore it until the very end. I’ve often wondered why I do this. I also have a tendency to paint Vignettes when I paint the figure and portraits. I wonder if this is also related to the way I leave the left side ‘open’ or unfinished. I do feel it’s good to leave the canvas ‘open’ as long as possible so that the canvas can talk to me. This seems to evoke more imagination. Once it’s closed up there’s not much more to say. But this idea is not the same as my leaving a lot on the left side undone.   Completion at blocked-in-colour stage by Karin Snoots, Harbeson, DE, USA  

“Dancing on the Rocks”
original painting
by Karin Snoots

I am one of those who block in the composition first and then go back and find “the path” to completion. This way of working for me has developed through time. Some really interesting formulations of color have appeared but I’ve worked beyond to the finished painting with the addition of detail. While working to produce a large body of paintings for a solo show, I finally got the courage to stop at the “color blocked” stage and include them in the exhibit. They were so totally different from what I normally display so I was terrified but excited at the same time. They were received with very favorable reviews and actually that style has been accepted into a gallery that normally wouldn’t be interested in my more traditional work. I love being able now to switch back and forth — it challenges my brain!   Converging hemispheres by Cathy DeWitt, Gainesville, FL   Starting from the center might show that the activity of painting utilizes both sides of the brain, as does music. There are, of course, artists in both genres who lean more in one direction than the other. In the work that I do, using the arts with elders/aging population, the arts have been shown to keep the brain active and help people age more “successfully.” One notable thing that Dr. Gene Cohen, a pioneer in this field, found is that as people age the two hemispheres of their brain move closer together and start to work more in balance. Something to look forward to! There are 2 comments for Converging hemispheres by Cathy DeWitt
From: Patsy, Northern Ireland — Jan 31, 2012

Could this explain why, as a left-hander, in my old age I find I can do more and more with my right hand? It’s very “handy” – I can sling that old iron or the broom from hand to hand as I go – all I need is music. ;-) And you should see me texting and using the computer mouse!

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Jan 31, 2012

Rest in peace, Gene Cohen. He was a wonderful charismatic man who did great things.

  Layer-by-layer puzzle by Cheryl R Long, Kent, WA, USA  

“Full moon with maple tree”
oil painting
by Cheryl R Long

The way I paint and teach watercolor is not so much top to bottom as by layer. The first wash for the entire painting goes down first. Subsequent washes go down dark to light, reserving the lights with care. Then the sequence is large shapes vs. detail. I find every painting is a puzzle and the subject matter and atmosphere have their own demands as to what works best for that painting. With that said, I admit I am a Gemini and probably reasonably whole-brained and occasionally no- brained. I think I have a little chipmunk up there racing from side to side at will!   Advice from a Behavioural Optometrist by Helen Opie, Granville Ferry, NS, Canada  

“Stuarttown, Low Tide”
oil painting, 10 x 8 inches
by Helen Opie

About 2 years ago I noticed that I had begun to leave out everything on the left: 6 – 8 inches of my paintings on those over 24″ wide. Later, I’d suddenly become aware that, while I’d blocked colour into the rest of the painting and even worked another layer of finish over that, I’d mentally cut off this strip down the left side. When I went for my eye check with the optometrist, who describes himself as a Behavioural Optometrist, I told him about this, that maybe my brain was no longer capable of seeing the whole of things. He reminded me that in general when we think about the past, our eyes shift to the left, and he thought there might be something in my past I was vigorously ignoring or avoiding dealing with. I had been re-framing many parts of my life as I’d gained insight into them, and so I got to work on my thought processes and what I was thinking about — or not thinking about. I came upon some contradictory beliefs about myself, worked to bring them into line with each other, and must have done the right thing, for now I am once again painting all over the canvas. We seem to reveal more than the subject matter (even if it is non-objective, there is composition or colour as our subject) when we put brush to surface, and sometimes the only person who notices is ourselves. There is a lot to learn about ourselves in becoming aware of how we paint, and also a lot to learn about how we want to present our own painting, from looking at the compositional techniques or devices of others.   All over and at once by Jeanean Martin, Boyds, MD, USA  

“Tybee Island #1”
oil painting
by Jeanean Martin

As one who is fascinated by the way other painters work, I was very interested in this article. In my training at art school I was advised to “work all over the canvas at once.” I still use that approach. Working in a top-down manner may keep your paint from smearing but may give less of an overall feeling of unity due to the systematic approach of working in a sequential manner. I also really enjoy the “excitement” of starting in a completely gestural manner, feeling the entire size of the canvas from top to bottom and side to side, making compositional decisions from this assessment of space and the constraints of the picture plane. The integrity of the picture plane can be realized more fully if you are acutely aware of its size and limitations. It is hard to feel this unless you move around from edge to edge. Every good representational painting has a strong abstract underpinning. By working all over the canvas in a gestural manner the image is “arrived at” and the emergence of this image relates fully to the entire canvas, not just an image stuck in the middle haphazardly like a cameo. Positive and negative spaces and their relationships are as important if not more important than the central image itself. I don’t care how beautifully you render a form, it will be hard to have a completely cohesive statement if it doesn’t fit well into the overall composition guided by the constraints of the canvas. If you look at Cezanne’s landscapes, especially the ones that are not completed, you can see how thoughtful each mark and color is. You can also see how each mark relates to another mark and how every color is determined and arrived at by another color. I think it is important to work in a way that allows for changes in the beginning of the painting. Working all over the canvas ensures unity and a better composition. There is 1 comment for All over and at once by Jeanean Martin
From: Marie Pinschmidt — Jan 31, 2012

I absolutely agree. Nice painting also.

  Study of brain hemispheres by Chris Carter, Califon, NJ, USA  

“Olivia Frasco & Lia Favan”
oil painting
by Chris Carter

Last night I attended the opening of an exhibit, “Art and the Brain: Studies of Lonni Sue Johnson’s Cognitive Abilities.” Lonni Sue worked as a professional illustrator for 31 years, including covers for The New Yorker Magazine. In 2007 she was struck with encephalitis, destroying part of her brain. She could not walk, talk or draw. Her case is currently being studied at Johns Hopkins University. Though she now walks, talks and draws, she cannot form new memories, nor can she remember much of her past life. Her vast vocabulary remains strong. The studies indicate that the brain may not be as compartmentalized as previously thought. It appears that creativity and language use areas of the entire brain, not just left or right. My personal explorations of brain activity have been inspired by weekly sessions spent with my 88 year old father who suffers from Alzheimer’s. He wrote poetry as long as I can remember. During the last six months he stopped using adjectives and adverbs. He lost all desire to write at all. I began to teach him to draw contour drawings, hoping to stimulate his brain. What I didn’t expect was how the ten minutes of focused drawing would affect his language. After drawing, he used adjectives and adverbs again in his speech for the remainder of our visit. I continue to test this with him and the results are the same. When I arrive, his language is without description. After drawing, he is able to be expressive as well as able to associate abstract ideas. Here is a link to Lonni Sue’s blog. Here is a link to the entry on our Carter Family blog “Walks With Dad” that notes my first observation of his language change. My father, an electrical engineer, never understood or enjoyed Abstract Art until he lost his memory. He can now stand in front of an abstract painting and lose himself in it, allowing it to trigger thoughts and feelings that had been buried deep beneath his judgements and logic. There are 8 comments for Study of brain hemispheres by Chris Carter
From: Jim van Geet — Jan 30, 2012
From: Anonymous — Jan 31, 2012

There has to be a relation between drawing and language. I hear so many artists say they can’t talk while they paint, including myself. By the way, you had to depict these young women with a direct eye line to their crotch? Of all the many ways to illustrate the beauty of the female form and the grace of ballerinas you had to center your painting thus? Degas never did such a pose. I don’t see your well rendered arms and legs, I see a crotch. This reminds me of the high school athlete who qualified for the Olympics in pole vaulting. How did the newspaper choose to feature their photo article? With a crotch shot. Geez ….

From: Michael McDevitt — Jan 31, 2012

I disagree with the comment regarding “eye line” in your composition. The design is strong, the forms straightforward, and the colors rich. The reality that certain angles spur controversy makes me grin. I teach life drawing. Nailing the pose is about forms and their relation to the entire frame. Very exciting image — wish I could see the original.

From: Anonymous — Jan 31, 2012

Lovely painting. People see what they want to see. I looked at this painting with interest and “crotch” never crossed my mind…

From: Anonymous — Jan 31, 2012

I earnestly, truly wanted to see the ballerina students in this painting exercising their discipline of dance – no, I didn’t “want” to see this pose. It is thrust upon the observer. I only submit the beauty of dance could have been depicted far better with a view a few degrees to the right or left to eliminate a sexual connotation. A man may not see or recognize that, I don’t know. But how many male athletes or male ballet dancers do you see with such direct focus? Virtually none.

From: Anonymous — Jan 31, 2012

BEauty is in the eye of the beholder… I first saw strength of pose, poise of the dancer. When drawing or painting in a “life drawing class, there are many angles and poses. But never did I ‘think’ of this stance until the discontent of the annon. writer was voiced. “Thinking it” doesn’t make it so.

From: Dottie Dracos — Feb 01, 2012

After thinking that this was a strong, well-executed painting and studying your use of color in light and dark, I noticed that the person in front was wearing ballet shoes and the person behind was not. I found that very interesting.

From: Aleada Siragusa — Feb 01, 2012

I saw the focus on the supporting leg, it emphasized the strength of a ballerina and to do this it had to be painted at this angle. Controversy aside, I found this article fascinating and I’ll look further into the blogs mentioned. My father, a chemical engineer, had Alzheimer’s also, it is tragic. My best to you and your family as they help your father through this journey.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Left, right, up, down

From: janet — Jan 26, 2012

When I’m working in mixed media collage I work from the center outward. When I’m painting I work from right to left, specifically because I am left handed. If I were to work from left to right I would be obscuring my view of what I am working on and risking dragging my hand against it. I also work on a drafting table rather than an easel and because the angle is much less acute I can rotate the canvas or board as I am working on it. I wonder how many other artists do this. The easel is used to get some distance from the work in order to view and assess my progress.

From: Daniela — Jan 26, 2012

Love your letter and your sense of humour! To be honest, I have never thought about it and couldn’t tell you because if I watch myself do art I can’t be getting on with doing art….um..

From: Heidi Berger — Jan 27, 2012

Have never thought about the significance of the painting sequence … in all my work I start with the background…I work the whole canvas first, either with paint or collage before I start in on my subject which is often positioned on the right, but facing left…I paint people. The layering process, and pentimento, is important to me…I feel all the previous layers inform the final painting. For this reason I often work over old paintings, a face over a floral for example…generally good things happen. It seems important that I react to surfaces, materials, the painting itself…

From: Diane Hart — Jan 27, 2012

Interesting article. We have had this discussion many times in my art class. I am primarily a still life painter. I start at the top left background and end up (hopefully with a bang)at the front right! I am so entrenched that I always have my light coming from the left so it ends on the center of interest and foreground. Can hardly get my brain to work in any other way! It is my happy place.

From: Rene W — Jan 27, 2012

It never occurred to me where I start a painting so I got up from my iPad and went over to look at a painting that I just started. Sure enough, being right dominated, I started on the upper right portion and it appears that I working to the left. With that said I do paint rather tight. I also tend to start a painting with the least interesting part just to get a feeling as to where I am going and as a warm up for the project.

From: Dorothy Gardiner — Jan 27, 2012

I’m a top downer-because I was taught to do that. Since I paint landscapes with pastels in Plein air, it’s important to me to keep the work clean. Also putting a blue green line fairly early on to indicate horizon, is important, or I’ll get lost in the process. Being a fairly loose painter, I prefer to get a feel for the local color and light, as opposed to painting detail.

From: Nina Allen Freeman — Jan 27, 2012

Everyone reading your letter is now getting up and examining their paintings and I am no different. I am surprised to learn that I have always begun my paintings, without fail, at the upper left! Even those paintings that have a prominent subject like a vase of flowers, I think first how it relates to the left side of the paper! By the time I get to the bottom right, I am usually wondering how to make this corner interesting – I have run out of ideas. I usually come up with something, though I notice the left side of my paintings are the more interesting. Once I get the basic things down, foreground, background, basic shapes, I then go front to back to refine the space. This left side leaning surprises me. I am right-handed. Once I broke my right wrist and while it was in a cast I wanted to continue painting but couldn’t. I found it easier to work with collage, so I created collage paintings with my left hand for the summer my wrist was healing. I don’t remember starting them on the left side in the same way – more in the middle. My poor brain.

From: John B. — Jan 27, 2012

I usually start working on the largest shapes and continue all over the canvas – a little here, a little there – as I add colors, figure out where the work is going, and refine it. Just like my writing, I go from the general to the specific and revise a lot. I have seen painters go from one spot and continue painting outward from it, like painting the side of a house, and completely finishing each passage as they move on, until the work is completed. There is a painter in our group who paints like that, starting at the upper left and radiating out until she’s finished. I’m too undisciplined and scatterbrained to work that way.

From: Brenda McCourt Pulham — Jan 27, 2012

while awaiting my turn for an adjudicated show which allowed us a private precise of our work I happened to overhear the honoured guest ask the artist if she had added her sky in afterwards. I suppose there were some telltale marks. This has stuck in my brain made me cautious so that my pieces going into juried shows etc. do not have such distractions. That said I do not favour formatted painting and like to let loose letting the colour often converse with me. I have learned better how to adjust background and skies by going back in and overlapping the foreground to give the proper distancing effect. It is tricky though and perhaps a little more time consuming. However, sometimes a nearly finished painting needs the sky colour adjusted or background to enhance a forground colour or effect. p.s I paint from left to right usually. On a paintout one of our more sage painters/teachers remarked I could start with the subject of frozen pond waters and work from that point of interest as that is what I loved about the scene. She was right.

From: Doug Mays — Jan 27, 2012

My watercolors are created like the old (now ancient) first Polaroid cameras developed a photo. Starting with a gloss white paper, light, misty almost abstract shapes result after a few seconds then darker, hard edges appear after about 2 minutes.

From: Joseph Murray — Jan 27, 2012

Hello Robert !I often wonder how your brain comes up with such interesting artistic subjects for these bi-weekly conversations . Your current topic is very interesting-about how we get started doing art . Since I am mostly self-taught my paintings might be different than others . I do my drawings on the canvas and they always emanate from lower center to either side and then upwards. The actual painting process always emanates from the top down . Most of the time I have a vision in my mind of what I want the finished painting to look like before I start . Doesn’t always happen to end that way — but that is the originating thought processes . Sometimes nice accidents happen. I always paint the background first to try and capture the emotions and color harmonies that are more subtle and then sharpen the color and composition dynamics as the painting moves downward to the focal points . As I ponder my painting processes and your question of interest more I have come to the conclusion that one of the main reasons I paint the way I do is that the last thing I am working on is the most important topic or interest point for the painting .Thus, hopefully i end up with a larger sense of satisfaction when it is completed . All the Best — Joseph Murray-Wayuga Art Studio-Jefferson, Iowa

From: TH1 — Jan 27, 2012

I never truly considered the aspects raised, but I begin by painting in my background …from top left, working over to the right and down to the bottom as I go. I then begin working on the subject matter which is usually pretty central. And yes, I do find that the balance on the left is fairly spontaneous, and that I sometimes need to think about the right hand side with more care.

From: BrianM — Jan 27, 2012

It is common to look for signs of the brain’s separate hemispheric functions in the things we do, but such over-simplifications are seldom correct unless and individual’s eyes are fixed on an object, with all peripheral visual stimuli (to that object) thus landing on either the right or left portions of the retina. Only then will those images be transmitted to the brain’s right or left hemisphere, and thus be interpreted with there, but almost instantaneously shared with the opposite hemisphere via the corpus callosum. Interestingly, there is evidence that since western languages are based on grapheme/phoneme, and (especially with English) are vast in their vocabulary, that they, when compared with top-down asian languages which are visual symbols/characters with much less opportunity for nuance, that this explains the relative disparity between western and eastern creativity.

From: Jackie Knott — Jan 27, 2012

I usually do back ground, middle ground, subject, which falls more or less into layers. Even that tends to be top-bottom. I “switch” when I get to my subject and then go darks to lights. I’m a great believer in turning my canvas upside down and sideways to fix problem areas … so I guess I’m reversing? I remember watching a demo on Robert Bateman, who paints darks to lights and he was all over the canvas.

From: kris wilson — Jan 27, 2012

thought provoking article – i am going to try different approches and see the results – i recently changed my palette from left to right, white to dark and noticed a big difference mentallly because i am dsylexic. panitng from the top down is going to be quite a challenge – i usuallly start dark to light all over the canvas — work my shapes and then the point of interest — however some of my better paintings have started with the point of interest? It would be interesting to see if the viewer could tell where you started… any comments?

From: Raymond Mosier — Jan 27, 2012

I look to the left when at my desk because there is a blank white wall to my right, not because I suddenly shift to right brain mode. I am thinking if I were to repaint that white wall on my right, I would paint from top left corner, left to right and top to bottom. That appears to be a natural and practical way to do it, not having single creative or artistic implication. I think a mountain from a mole hill is this issue. An eastern room painter might start it from the opposite corner. My watercolor subjects are mostly landscapes, so starting at the top left corner and working across and down is painting distant, mid, and near areas, working light to dark is also a purely practical process. It’s more how well you do that than the process.

From: Rae Smith — Jan 27, 2012

I’m a pastel artist and usually start with the sky first,sets the mood and the painting progresses from there ,usually from the top down, so I don’t rub my hand in the pastels.

From: Jacqueline Kinsey — Jan 27, 2012

I seem to work more left to right, but that is my natural inclination in reading a book. I always start at the last page and flip through it back to front initially. I have always thought it weird that westerners want to label people with terms like dislexia (sp?). To me, we are the backwards ones in the west…for thousands of years our ancestors wrote or documented information from left to right…so it makes common sense to me that we would have a natural tendancy to do this. I’m curious to know if anyone else has thought of this…?

From: Jacqueline — Jan 27, 2012

Yah…I meant right to left! LOL!

From: Linda Drewry — Jan 27, 2012

I used to busk in the park with a fellow artist who painted from the top down. That’s the method she was taught at a leading art school affiliated with Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in the 60’s! By the 90’s, she just could not change her ways. Myself I pretty much start with the darkest patch and then the lightest point, the most saturated color, and work towards the middle, keying everything toards these 3 areas,whether in pastel, oil, acrylic or even collage and mixed media which is my favourite medium now.

From: Deborah Kutch — Jan 27, 2012

I look forward to your letters every week. I was originally taught by decorative artists and always the sky or background was painted first. I continue to start my paintings at the top and yes they tend to be tight, controlled and detailed. Now that I realize what I have been doing, I am going to start elsewhere on the canvas with the hope of becoming looser, wilder and messier in my paintings, something that I have been aspiring to for several years. I’ll let you know how it all turns out.

From: Bill Doying — Jan 27, 2012

I just thought I’d mention, in this connection, that Mary Whyte of Charleston, SC – to my mind one of the finest watercolorists anywhere, admonishes in her instructional DVD to paint first the largest area of the composition, in order to set a value reference point, and then proceed to the next largest, etc. Not quite the same issue you were discussing, perhaps, but if followed it would rather restrict the left-right-up-down choice. More generally, I think watercolorists face a number of considerations peculiar to that medium that tend to control starting points (dark over light, not the contrary, for example) depending on the color layout of the planned composition.

From: Karla Pearce — Jan 27, 2012

I try to block in my paintings all at once. Lately, I’ve been priming my canvas grey then I will add the white then the black. Ta da..Then I have a clear map of where I’m going in the painting. Colour goes in on top of that. It’s a good way to save on time and paint.

From: Pauline Levy Lazzarini — Jan 27, 2012

Personally I start my painting from the middle. People often ask me why I seem to paint myself into that situation and having to struggle painting the background into small detailed areas. I guess my enthusiasm for the center is part of who I am.

From: Kathy Kaser — Jan 27, 2012

Interesting that you should write about this today. This week I’m working on a small art quilt (20 x30). I conceived the composition one way, then noticed I sewed some of the strips the other way, shifting the focal point from right to left. It felt uncomfortable at first, then I decided to go with it as a challenge to “change”.

From: Bill Erlenbach — Jan 27, 2012

A quick glance around my studio and it is obvious that I lean toward left focused. My landscapes tend to be composed to draw the eye to the left (although not exclusively). Figures and wildlife tend to be on the left, but when on the right they are almost always looking to the left or have a strong foreground element on the left. Paintings with strong foreground elements on the right seem awkward to me (though I have done some). To be honest, I had never given this a lot of thought other than an intuitive feeling of comfort with a particular composition. Fascinating.

From: Pat Dolan — Jan 27, 2012

Interesting observations and information. Thought provoking, to be sure!

From: Deb Richt — Jan 27, 2012

When I do an oil painting, I paint in the darks first and work backwards to the lights from there. It doesn’t matter where they’re located. When I do a watercolor I think of the lightest lights first and start painting from there. Foreground, background, center of interest are part of the whole composition. Every painting starts with a small value study, which becomes my “map” of progression.

From: Lanell Penrod — Jan 27, 2012

Since I paint portraits, I tend to start in the center and wherever the darkest shadows are. Any correlation to anything in my innermost being in this kind of habit? Intelligent? Dumb? Great painter? Poor Painter? Glad you are able to travel and revel in all kinds of light!

From: Lorna Dockstader — Jan 27, 2012

As pastels were the first medium I used, working from the top down kept the work fresher and cleaner. It just seemed natural to work the same way in other media. In landscape painting, the sky creates the mood so I always paint it first, and paint downwards. Colour selection also works very well from the top down. The colours stay fresh and don’t require modification. It has also been a reason I haven’t considered teaching as I don’t know that many people could relate to this top to bottom process.

From: Jo — Jan 27, 2012

I find your comments very interesting regarding the left brain- right brain. Does this stem from left hand right hand which goes back in most children to well before painting became part of their lives. It is also interesting how much art you can look at and know whether the artist is left handed or right handed. So many things to think about and so little time.

From: Marion Boddy-Evans — Jan 27, 2012

Great question, it’s something that can become so automatic, yet at some point a preference must have emerged. With landscapes, I start with the horizon line, deciding where I’m going to position it, marking it in the centre, then left and right, check it’s horizontal and join the dots. From this I work into the sky and land below the horizon, often with the same colour, which will ultimately be the lowest layer only. With figures, I start with the head, a light rough outline, then mark the rest of the figure guided by the size of the head, then refine as a whole. Definitely a “big picture” not a “one-section-at-a-time” painter.

From: Patricia QUreshi — Jan 27, 2012

Three of the my last five paintings I started on the right. But the two lefties are my personal bests.

From: Debra Rexroat — Jan 27, 2012

I thought I had hit upon a unique insight when I discovered that I work in concentric circles, from the center outward and back again. Thanks for this letter which affirms for me that what is so right for me may not be the only way, unique to me, or all that unusual — but may be an indication of how I think! Now I will have to spend some time contemplating that idea.

From: Paula Timpson — Jan 27, 2012

all that matters is that we Create, freely~ The heart leads & the eyes see the stars shiny light, leading us home~

From: Juan Jose Iuorno-Paladino — Jan 28, 2012

The crimson ghost of a gaucho wandered the steaming pampa, observed by a peripatetic Canadian artist with the right attitude and an active left brain. While the smiling guanaco knew the fate of his Auntie’s Grampa and ruminated on the effect of “yerba mate” on visiting foreign folks.

From: Joann Slead — Jan 28, 2012

Most interesting thought on how we start paintings. I had to think about it. I don’t start with any particular side, I start with the subject where ever that may be, in the left, right, bottom or top, then I continue around the subject and all over, where ever my eye thought wanders.

From: Gordon & Jean Sonmor — Jan 28, 2012
From: Bren Nichols — Jan 28, 2012

I think of myself as working from the back, (or the depth) of my painting, to the front (or the surface) of my work. Possibly because I work in a “layering” or “glazes” of paint that I often think in this way.

From: Barbara Ettles Carter — Jan 28, 2012
From: Jacqueline Altman — Jan 28, 2012

I found your commentary fascinating. One thing you may have neglected in all this from right to left and visa versa business is as a lefty, I often begin on the right and top and work toward the left and bottom so as to not smear my work as I go! I am also a watercolorist, and it is easier to let the paint move from the top down unless one does a lot of tilting of the paper!

From: Mary Kay — Jan 28, 2012

I and my fellow watercolorists seem to start with main subject just off center …both from top and sides and bottom!

From: Phil the Forecaster — Jan 28, 2012

Ahhh… left – right – up or down? I found this letter very interesting and never tire of reading about this topic. It seems new to me every time I see this information. I guess that is a problem with being dyslexic! I wonder if Robert would want to write about dyslexia and art… or maybe he wants to tackle the bigger question “Is there really a Dog?”

From: D Gail Mazer — Jan 28, 2012

When I start a painting now, I usually do rough sketch, basically beginning with the subject in the middle and then the background in sepia color. After that, I start with the BACKGROUND and work my way forward which means the upper left hand corner for clouds or sky. I do work the subject soon after that but at this point is it basically an under-painting. When finishing the painting, I work the same way. Background to foreground, with the details of the subject usually the very last thing to be done. Occasionally I will go back and add touches to the background that I feel are needed. Like those men, I am tight, rendered, and focused.

From: Dyan Law — Jan 28, 2012

I would love to know how many other portrait artists like myself prefer to paint best from one side of the model (the model’s left side) so much stronger that I tend to gravitate to that “desired” position every time I come before a model! I paint alternately starting from top to bottom, left to right and visa versa with no problem. I’ve overcome this “one-sided tendency” somewhat by forcing myself to draw or paint from my “weaker” side, but I tend to labor over the work less efficiently till I get it right! Hmmm, I wonder if I was once tilted to one side inside the womb too long!!! Perhaps I had just practiced drawing from one same direction for so long as a youngster that I couldn’t catch the other side up!!! That seems unlikely though.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Jan 28, 2012

I once read an article by a brain surgeon who said that creative/computing brain thing is conceptual and it doesn’t correspond to the left/right hemispheres of the brain. For example, a person with a brain injury that looses ability to speak may re-learn it by developing the same ability in the other hemisphere of the brain from where the original damaged one. So I am guessing that left-right brain inclination the way artists talk about it, shouldn’t have anything to do with the left/right side of the painting.

From: Terrie Christian — Jan 28, 2012

What about all over? When I am doing paintings that are purely abstract I just start laying down a color all over the paper, then clean my brush and put a different color down all over with no thought to what I am doing. It is very fun and seems to take me to a place that is meditative. When I am doing this, I do not care for what any outcome might be. Sometimes I like these paintings a great deal and other times not. That is not the purpose. After I have the color in, I come back and fill in some of the white spaces with black using a sharpie marker. I skip the rule that watercolorists must mix all their own darks. After the painting is finished, I and others can see images that I did not intend but that I love!

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Jan 28, 2012

Do you have to think, “I am working on the right side of my brain today or the left side of my brain today?” Can we dictate which side of the brain works by saying it loud? Your inspiration and the subject matter dictates how you lay out your composition. It does not matter where one starts as long the principles of good painting are applied. Perspective, balance, proportions, lines and color all contribute enhancing the focal point and composition so I don’t think it matters very much where one starts. What is important is knowing your subject and the source of light to apply the proper highlights and shadows.

From: Marianne Gallagher — Jan 28, 2012

I tend to start smack in the middle of the page. I have trouble filling the whole canvas. I’m trying to be more aware of this.

From: Mary Lou Swicklik — Jan 28, 2012

Did anyone ever think that a right-handed person might work from left to right (and vice-versa) simply because (same goes for from top to bottom) he/she would not be dragging his/her arm or hand through wet paint so they would not be smearing the paint or themselves.?

From: Janice Vogel — Jan 28, 2012
From: violetta — Jan 28, 2012

In art college days we were soundly discouraged from working in any other way other than blocking in tonally and working all over the subject, loosely, not getting stuck anywhere. I am so glad we did this, it is like jumping off a cliff over and over until you just do it. I think if you work in oils you work differently, usually blocking in the largest areas first and starting in dark tones, in water color this is not really a good idea. Pastels – I love oil pastels because I feel like a child in a lolly shop. The ready made colors in front of me become the main inspiration and not the left or right or anything else, and my pastels (oil ones) are my most satisfying work, I just go to a different zone.

From: joanna sutherland — Jan 29, 2012

I have had to learn to paint upside down because its the only way to reach unless the picture is a smallish one. As a wheelchair use I can’t use and easel so I rest the canvas on my knee, and propped up against the table. So, I end up just turning the canvas round to where I can reach. I don’t think I have ever painted a sky the right way up. Ceilings can be difficult that for sure, but its all in the process of painting, and I get there in the end. Happy painting folks.

From: Laura Zerebeski — Jan 29, 2012

I’m a female top-downer. I’m also a predominant left-weighter. Sadly, my work is not especially tight or careful. It’s loaded with the textural evidence of my do-overs. I gave a talk on some of my paintings and claimed the left-weightedness in the majority of my paintings had political significance. That is, perhaps I was symbolically indicating my left-leaning preference. True or not, it gave them an arguable essay topic. Or maybe my left-handedness has something to do with it.

From: Roxana Caples — Jan 30, 2012

Watercolor artists approach a painting differently because of the transparency and need to preserve our white paper. Our concern is not for where to start, but for what is behind and farthest in the background. Pulling a variegated wash down from the top, or dropping in a multi colored surrounding for beginning backgrounds is often the start for transparent watercolors. Layers and layers follow to bring the viewer to the front of the scene.

From: Theresa Svanda — Jan 30, 2012

I paint from the center and then go in an arch right to left most of the time. However, I have started in the middle and then worked bottom to top or top to bottom.

From: Sandra P. Robinson — Jan 30, 2012

Your comments made me chuckle………..For the past year or so I have been starting in the lower right area; ok I guess. However, not so when you are right handed and are working in graphite. Why do I do this – haven’t got a clue! As far as painting; after an undercoat and sketchy drawing, I usually begin with the center of interest where I tend to have the darkest darks and lightest lights. These usually are on the right side of the work also.

From: Patricia Neil Lawton — Jan 30, 2012

With my composition blocked in carefully; I start with the faces of the figures . I wet-in-wet with hard and lost edges on their facial contours and shadows; then go straight for the eyes. To me, the eyes are everything. I then mix my flesh tones and paint in all of the flesh………….. From there on, the painting leads me on, normally starting on the left of the paper and working across all foreground objects including clothing. I leave all the background detail and woozley stuff until the very end. Thank you for the very intriguing letter

From: Steve Amsden — Jan 30, 2012

I begin to put on the paint in the middle of my paintings. I then work down to complete the foreground and then up for the background.

From: Linny D. Vine — Jan 30, 2012

Knock, knock … where’s Robert? He’s in “R.Genn-tina”. (Groan.)

From: Ilse Taylor — Jan 30, 2012

The different approaches artists use to start their paintings may in part depend on the medium they use. Watercolorists tend to start at the top and with light colors, gradually working their way towards the darker values. In acrylic it might not matter so much where one starts, as everything dries so fast. But in oil, the medium I use, the choice is wide open. Oil stays wet for a long time and you could start anywhere. Personally, I begin with a sketch in either charcoal or thin oil, to establish the placement on the canvas. The process of drawing, I feel, is much more directed by left brain than by right brain activity, still, I tend to do that from left to right. Once that is done, and color comes into play, I work quickly and everywhere, all over the picture-plane. That helps me to better see the color and value relationships. Since everything is relative this is very important to me. One color influences how I see the adjacent one, so I don’ t want to separate foreground from background or center of interest from “less important areas” – everything is equally important. I probably tend to start with the color that “calls” me most and then work my way outward from there – wherever that place may be. Once the whole canvas is covered and I am happy with the color relationships, I finish the painting, going over most areas with thicker color, mainly working my way from the left to the right and from top to bottom.

From: artisinstudio — Jan 30, 2012

I, likewise paint/draw from right to left. I teach my artists to do likewise, beginning their art on the opposite side of their dominant hand. To drive home this point with novice artists, we do a positive/negative space project using black paint or ink. After that, hand drag is a thing of the past. When we do blind contour drawing at the studio, there is a natural direction that each of us follows as we draw. After we do several rotations of natural direction, having the artists reverse their direction will engage more of their brain and they will then draw what they see, not what they think they see. Then I have them start at the bottom rather than the top.

From: Lee Caflisch — Jan 31, 2012

This is interesting…I paint interpretive realism. I think I paint all over the place, starting with where the color is going to go that I have dipped into. I paint everywhere on the canvas….maybe because my aversion to routine and rules.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Jan 31, 2012

A long time ago, some friends wanted drawing lessons…we worked from still life….each one of them had a unique and really rigid way of beginning a drawing…one started everything in the upper right corner, another tilted everything, another lined everything up on a surface…as a non-interventionist at the time, all I could do was point their patterns out and see what happened and nothing changed. I am a terrible teacher! The person who lined everything up had studied office management and did this for university presidents…I guess it is good I didn’t intervene…no telling what chaos might have ensued at those universities!

From: Lynn Pocklington — Jan 31, 2012

Well, I always start with the background behind my subject first from left to right. I do close-up portraits of Grizzly Bears at the moment, so I then start with the eyes and then work out in all directions where ever the flow of hair takes me. I then finish with the foreground. I suppose I am a mix of top down and inside out, lol!

From: Michael — Jan 31, 2012

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Jeremy Lipking, but he is a supreme figural artist, and he starts with the eye, then moves to the face, then continues outward, until the painting is finished. He finishes everything before moving on, and he doesn’t change or go back and revise. I’ve seen his CD, and it is absolutely frightening — it is completely the opposite of the way I learnt to paint — keeping all parts of the picture developing simultaneously — and his work is masterful.

From: Betty J. Billups — Jan 31, 2012

Well, I have had to give this some thought…to figure out “WHAT DO I DO”?? Sounds funny, since I’ve been painting over 40 years…But the bottom line is: always lead with your SOUL…the passion, of what you do, and even if not the “best” choice…your passion will carry almost any “wrong” choice…PASSION is what art is all about! However, using my left brain portion of the creative process, I begin with my main focus … and start there! From the basic design, and composition, to the laying in of colors and values, down to the final details. As the painting progresses, the balance of the painting will be dictated by the main focus. There should only be ONE MAIN CHARACTER, and there should be no question what that is! (BUT, the FULL choice of color and value, are taken from the creative part of my brain, not the TOTAL logical part!) If you do not focus primarily on your center of interest, then the values, colors and other details that you place in the secondary areas, may not leave you enough room, to get the main subject captured, with the limits our two dimensional paint will allow. And also, you may create too much interest thru color or value contrast, in areas that are less important, and thus will detract from the main center of interest. Like actors in a play or movie… there should only be one “hero”, one “damsel”, one villan…and the rest are supporting characters!! This does not mean, you totally finish the main center of interest, before working the remainder of the composition…the entire painting needs to be worked up at a consistent rate, but remembering to play down areas that do not directly support the center of interest. Again, these choices should be made from your FEELINGS, of what is best, from your soul…no logic will help with the choices…because in the end, you are CREATING, not COPYING what you FEEL about what LIFE is showing us!!!

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Vanishing treasures

acrylic painting, 36 x 60 inches by Virginia Boulay, AB, Canada

  You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013. That includes Bianka Guna of Toronto, ON, Canada, who wrote, “They say in Romanian … ‘the chicken makes eggs with the same derrière no matter where…’ ” And also Elaine Chambers of Statesboro, GA, USA, who wrote, “I’ve had a few ‘spikey’ incidents with my blood pressure recently, so I always check my BP after returning from my studio and it’s always around 117 over 72, which is excellent. Painting isn’t just good for the soul — it’s obviously also good for the blood pressure!” And also Peter Salmon of New York, NY, USA, who wrote, “Cezanne said, ‘Advance the whole composition at once,’ which is the way I tend to work, moving around to all areas, letting the whole painting slowly develop clarity, like those old Polaroid prints.” And also Nancy Yu of Tivoli, NY, USA, who wrote, “Having a background in psychology, I have wondered about designing paintings according to the principles of neuro linguistic programming. Would it then be possible to design a painting that you not only like, but that made you feel good, too?”    

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